Question: What is modalism, and why is it a mistake?
Short Answer: One word – Transcendence.
Long Answer: Modalism, or modalist monarchianism (to use its unnecessarily longer label), is a way of viewing God and the Incarnation that posits that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are more or less sequential manifestations of God. In other words, before the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, God was Father, but during Jesus’ time on earth he was Son. What is thought to have happened when Jesus ascended into the heavens is usually not agreed upon or well worked out, but the classical way of describing modalism (which may or may not be an accurate representation of what anyone has actually believed) is that since the ascension God is now Holy Spirit.
Modalism was first identified and confronted in the second and third centuries, most especially by Tertullian, Hyppolytus of Rome, and Origen. Its main proponents or articulators appear to have been men by the name of Noetus, Praxeas, and Sabellius (from the last of whom the alternate name for modalism is derived – Sabellianism), and it appears to have been prevalent throughout the Church, even in Rome. At its heart, modalism is an attempt to maintain what was felt (by modalists) to be a purer conception of monotheism, as well as a defense of the complete divinity of Jesus (i.e., that Jesus was not simply one-third of God but that, in fact, all the fullness of deity dwelt within him bodily). So, in my opinion, Christians can all agree that modalism is motivated at least in part by good and biblical desires – to affirm that we worship one God and that Jesus is the perfect and complete revelation of God to humanity, that nothing remains of God that we have not somehow encountered in Christ.
According to Tertullian, the majority of average Christians in the early third century were at least functionally modalists. If his assessment is accepted as accurate, it is reasonable to assume that the majority of those Christians Tertullian considered modalists were not consciously so, meaning they were not thinking deeply about various alternative doctrines of God and of the Incarnation and intentionally making a decision to support the modalist conception. Rather, these Christians were simply going about their day-to-day lives being Christians, and the way they talked about God (especially in their hymns and prayers) tended toward modalism (or at least toward a sort of pious hyperbole that sounded like modalism). Some Christians consciously affirmed modalism, but most, probably, just did not think too deeply about the issue. Moreover, at that time the doctrine of the Trinity was still very much in development and had not been authoritatively worked out. Even after the doctrine of the Trinity had been worked out in more precise language, it has never been exactly the easiest doctrine to grasp (or to teach). Even today (or perhaps we could say especially today), it remains a much misunderstood doctrine, such that many of the images or metaphors that are commonly used in churches to teach and describe the Trinity are actually either modalist (water in gaseous, liquid, and solid states; the sun, its radiance, and its warmth) or tri-theist (three identical music stands). Moreover, there are some few Christians who, because of their discomfort with Trinitarian language, consciously affirm a modalist conception of God (these include some, but not all, adherents of “Oneness” theology). Again, their concern is chiefly to defend strict monotheism.
Modalism, however, is a mistake. The chief reason this is so is that, in the name of preserving the simplest possible concept of God’s unity and defending (it is thought) the totality of God’s presence in the Incarnation, modalism subjects God to time and space. Contemporary Oneness theologian David S. Norris provides a good example of the problems of modalism in his explication of his view of the Incarnation in his book I Am: A Oneness Pentecostal Theology. Norris believes that at the moment when the Holy Spirit overshadowed the virgin Mary and caused her to conceive Jesus, God’s dwelling place ceased, temporarily, to be “heaven”. From that moment until Jesus ascended into heaven following his resurrection, God was not “in heaven” but on earth in the person of Jesus Christ.
Now, biblically and not just theologically or rationally, there are numerous problems with this way of understanding the relationship of God in his transcendent and unknowable inner being to the incarnate God in Jesus. The most obvious problems center on those stories from the life of Jesus where God speaks from the heavens (Jesus’ baptism and the transfiguration) and on the issue of who it is, exactly, to whom Jesus prays. These narratives presume that somehow God still remains “in heaven” even while he walks the earth as Jesus, unless, of course, you resort to the misguided idea that, when Jesus is praying, it is his humanity praying to his divinity. This idea depicts a bifurcated Jesus, a Jesus who is not truly one person, but two. And it is not simply the Gospel narratives where the absence of God from heaven creates problems. What do we do, for example, with the standard New Testament way of describing the resurrection as God raising Jesus from the dead?
In my opinion, though, modalism is critically flawed from the start by the way it makes God subject to time and space. Norris’ concept of God leaving heaven to inhabit the earth within Jesus imagines “heaven” as a location within time and space, and Norris apparently thinks it impossible that God could inhabit heaven and Jesus at the same time without dividing himself into fractions (there are, in fact, other problems with speaking of Jesus as God’s “dwelling place”, but that is perhaps a post for another day; in short, Jesus is not simply a location for God’s dwelling, a human shell that God possesses – Jesus is God). But if “heaven” is a place in time and space, even if it is a place that is beyond our reach, and even if we say that time has a different meaning in “heaven”, nevertheless it still cannot be God’s dwelling place, in the sense that the totality of God dwells there and nowhere else (which is what is implied, if not stated outright, in Norris’ idea of “heaven”).
This is because a fundamental doctrine about God is that he is utterly transcendent. Inasmuch as we can even talk about his inner existence it is only to affirm that his inner existence is not bounded by anything or penetrable by anyone. In his inner, unfathomable, utterly transcendent being, he exists without reference to time or space, because he created time and space. Without utter transcendence, he cannot be considered God, either logically, theologically, or biblically. When we speak of “heaven” as God’s dwelling place, this is a kind of theological conceit, a shorthand way of describing God in his utter transcendence. We do not mean by “heaven”, at least in this sense, an actual place. The “heavens” in the physical sense describe, essentially, everything that is physically above the earth, and it is possible that some texts in the Bible envision God “dwelling” in the heavens, but other texts are critical of limiting God to even the physical heavens.
For example, Psalm 8:1 says, “O LORD, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens.” The LORD is above the heavens, which in Psalm 8 refers to the physical heavens, specifically where the moon and stars are located: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained … .” In 1 Kings 8:27, Solomon says, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded?” Solomon expresses awareness that God cannot be limited to any particular space, even the heavens or what he calls the “heaven of heavens”, let alone a physical temple. But in making this concession, he is laying the foundation for a theological concept of God’s full and unique presence for the Israelites in relation to the temple. In the following two verses, he prays:
Yet have thou respect unto the prayer of thy servant, and to his supplication, O Lord my God, to hearken unto the cry and to the prayer, which thy servant prayeth before thee to day: that thine eyes may be open toward this house night and day, even toward the place of which thou hast said, My name shall be there: that thou mayest hearken unto the prayer which thy servant shall make toward this place.
Solomon is giving expression to a complex view of God’s presence in creation and simultaneous existence beyond it, what later theologians have referred to as immanence and transcendence. These ideas, which must be taken together, say that God is at the same time everywhere present to physical reality but never confused with it. Many more biblical passages could be cited, but I trust that these are sufficient to establish the biblical perspective on God’s relation to physical space.
The Bible is perhaps a little less clear on the subject of God’s eternity, or we might say his temporal immanence and transcendence, but it does, in fact, affirm that God is not limited to time or essentially existent within time. Psalm 90:2 says, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.” Job 36:26 says, “Behold, God is great, and we know him not, neither can the number of his years be searched out.” In Exodus 3:14, when God answers Moses’ request for a name by saying “I AM that I AM … thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you”, this reveals his transcendence not only of space but of time (hence the power of Jesus’ reference to this verse in John 8:58). He is not only everywhere present, he is everywhen present, present to humanity at every moment in time while not being limited in his existence to our present, that is, the very point in time when I am writing this sentence or when you are reading it. For God, the two moments are mutually his present, as is every other moment in time. God’s knowledge of the future is not simply spectacularly good prediction. Whether the future is set or dynamic (meaning God exists in a single future or in all possible futures), God’s relation to time is not the same as ours, where we are carried along within it unwillingly. The truly biblical affirmation is that God created all of reality, creating time just as he did space, because the two are not truly separable. Moreover, because he created time, his existence is not limited to time. He is eternal in a way we can never truly comprehend or experience. Modern physics makes this perhaps a little easier for us to understand, or at least it gives us a vocabulary for talking about the transcendence of time, since modern physics regards time as merely another dimension beyond the three spatial dimensions. Therefore, a theology that places God within time is not in any substantial way different from one that limits God to a particular space, or places his essential existence within space.
The Christian concept of God’s omnipresence (that he exists everywhere), is closely related to and dependent upon our concept of his transcendence. In other words, the omnipresence we affirm is specifically a transcendent omnipresence. Wherever God is present, he is totally present. God is not a like a gaseous cloud that spreads out through physical space. In a room whose volume is 100 cubic meters, at any given moment the air in one cubic meter of that room will amount to approximately one percent of the total amount of air in the room. On the contrary, whenever I pray, wherever I pray, I believe that God is present to me to hear my prayer not simply in some infinitesimally minuscule fraction of his being (because of the dilution of God’s being as he fills up the vast volume of the universe), but in the totality of his being. That does not mean that God is not also totally present to the millions of other believers (and unbelievers) who may be praying to him at that very moment. And inasmuch as I am filled with his Holy Spirit, I believe that Spirit is in some mysterious way the totality of God working within me both to will and to act on behalf of his good pleasure. But that does not mean that there is no Holy Spirit left to fill other believers, as well. God simply is not bound or governed by time and space the way we are.
When we affirm that God is utterly transcendent, we still can say that God exists both within time and space and outside of time and space simultaneously and by choice. However, when we suggest that God can leave “heaven” and exist exclusively within the body of Jesus for a period of time, however we define “heaven” we have nullified the transcendence of God over time and space, because for a period of time he in his inner being relocates – he apparently cannot be in two “places” at the same “time”. The moment we say that God’s inner being exists within time and space, we make time and space transcendent and superior to God himself. When we affirm that God is transcendent, we are saying that no reality circumscribes the reality of God, that the most fundamental reality is the reality of God’s being. Whatever it means for all the fullness of the Godhead to dwell in Jesus bodily, it cannot mean that God ceases to exist outside of time and space.